Why I didn’t read Anthony Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’

Of all the classics that we are ‘supposed’ to read, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange – first published in 1962 – is high on the list.

Wright_StonesI saw the movie, years ago – as a Kubrick fan it was a natural. I am also a monolithic fan of Moog synthesisers – which Wendy Carlos used on the soundtrack. The opening march – a haunting Moog version of Purcell’s ‘Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary’ – has to be heard to be believed. Possibly I shouldn’t have seen the movie, though. It was very disturbing. So were some of the people in the audience.

If you haven’t seen the movie – well, let’s put it this way, it was filled with ‘ultra-violence’, which isn’t what you think. It’s all about asserting power over the unwilling. Very, very nasty, and very very scary – especially because Kubrick was such a total genius film-maker.

I recently borrowed a copy of the book, which would have presented as a fairly classic beat-gen piece if Burgess hadn’t been English. Could I read it? No, I couldn’t. Was it the ‘ultra violence’? No – weirdly. It was the vocabulary.

Burgess gave his world a sense of pop-future by creating neologisms. Lots of neologisms, many drawn from Russian, populating a teen-speak patois he called Nadsat. A few have entered common parlance – droog, for instance. I use that one myself, though not in the sense Burgess meant. But others haven’t, and the book is hard going if you don’t know them. In the first page he introduced droogs, rassoodocks, mesto, skorry, moloko, vesches, synthemesc, peet, deng, crasting, polly, tolchock, veck, viddy, pitsa and smecking.

I know what Burgess was trying to do. And he was a genius writer. But to me there is a balance point. Neologisms have their place; they lend a sense of the foreign, a sense of the alien that creates a dimension to any story.

But only in moderation. Burgess, to my mind, over-used them – a 1963 glossary totalled over 250 of them. Probably it’s no worse than Cockney slang – but I still didn’t know what the word meant without a lot of hassle – which made reading the stuff very, very hard going.

Sure, it’s a classic. But maybe later.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


5 thoughts on “Why I didn’t read Anthony Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’

  1. I completely agree! I tried to read it and was done after a few pages. I know it’s a classic but I simply hadn’t the patience! Great post, look forward to more!

      1. Haha you’re so right! I would rather spend my time reading a book that grips me for personal reasons than sludging through what I ‘should’ read. Never say never though, I may return to it and ffind some meaning!

  2. I’ve just acquired a copy of the book (the UK version, which apparently has additional chapters in that not even the movie had!) and am putting off reading it for this very reason… but I will eventually give it a go and will see how far I get🙂

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